Canadiens Need to Let Drouin Be Drouin

Jonathan Drouin will be entering his third season as a member of the Montreal Canadiens this fall. The former third-overall pick in the 2013 NHL entry draft showed much promise in his junior career as well as his first couple of seasons in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lighting.

However, the 24-year-old has failed to take the next step in his career, making many Canadiens fans both frustrated and concerned their team made a mistake trading Mikhail Sergachev to acquire him. Sergachev was picked ninth overall by the Canadiens in 2016, and despite taking a slight step back in his development this past season, has played two strong seasons for the Lighting.

Lightning Defenceman Mikhail Sergachev
TORONTO, ON – FEBRUARY 12: Tampa Bay Lightning Defenceman Mikhail Sergachev (Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Drouin has had one very underwhelming season with the Canadiens and one mediocre season. The 2019-20 season will be Drouin’s sixth in the NHL, so what should Canadiens fans expect from the native of Quebec this upcoming season?

2017-18: Drouin’s First Season

Despite there being a lot of hype around Sergachev when the Canadiens drafted him, I do not remember much backlash when the trade originally happened. As mentioned, Drouin, up to that point in his career seemed to be a superstar in the making. The Lighting were strapped for cash, needed to move one of their many high-paid (or soon to be high-paid) forwards and wanted a young defenseman with a lot of potential in return. Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin saw an opportunity to acquire a Quebec-born player who looked well on his way to becoming an elite forward in the NHL, so he made the move.

To call Drouin’s first season with the Canadiens a failure would be an understatement. The 2017-18 season for Drouin was atrocious. To make matters worse, the Canadiens were also horrible that season. So naturally, the Canadiens new, local player was given a ton of blame for the team’s poor success. When Drouin was first acquired, the criticism towards him was his effort level and attitude. Anytime throughout the season when he wasn’t producing (which was often), these critiques were brought up. Drouin only put up 13 goals and 46 points that season, which was eight fewer goals than he had the season prior with the Lighting.

Montreal Canadiens Jonathan Drouin Tampa Bay Lightning Dan Girardi
Montreal Canadiens Jonathan Drouin shoots after being tripped by former Tampa Bay Lightning Dan Girardi (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

2018-19: Drouin’s Second Season

The following season, the Drouin center experiment was over. Drouin would start the season in his natural position on the wing, and he looked much more comfortable. For over half of the 2018-19 season, Drouin finally seemed to be reaching his full potential. He was almost a point per game player the first half of the season, and found much success playing with newly acquired forward Max Domi. Drouin would finish the season with 18 goals and 53 points, matching his previous career-high, but all in all, still had an unsuccessful season in the eyes of many.

As the Canadiens battle for a playoff spot became tougher, Drouin’s play started to slide. Drouin would only put up a single goal and six assists in the last 26 games of the regular season, and the Canadiens missed the playoffs by three points. Not only did Drouin not produce offensively in the last stretch of the season, but the Canadiens’ power play finished second-to-last in the entire league. Drouin was thought to be one of the better young power-play players in the league prior to the Canadiens acquiring him, but thus far has failed to live up to these expectations.

Who’s to Blame for Drouin’s Struggles?

So, after two subpar seasons of Drouin in Montreal, what should fans expect from him in the 2019-20 season? In my opinion, they should expect a lot from the skilled forward, and here’s why. In Drouin’s first season with the Canadiens, the team’s head coach, Claude Julien, gambled with playing the natural winger at center. Julien’s options at center were slim that season, so he decided to give Drouin the opportunity to be the No. 1 center the Canadiens had been missing for so long. Drouin had some experience playing the position in junior, but for the most part, had played on the wing his entire career.

Jonathan Drouin lines up for a faceoff during his time with the Halifax Mooseheads. [photo: David Chan]

After just a handful of games, it seemed quite clear that Drouin couldn’t handle the responsibilities that came playing center and it was also taking away from his offensive capabilities. Despite what seemed like the entire hockey world knowing this experiment wasn’t going to work, Julien stuck to his guns and kept Drouin at center all season. So, personally I do not blame Drouin for his lackluster first season with the Canadiens, I put the blame on their coach for not putting him in the best position to be successful.

My blame for Drouin’s second season with the Canadiens is also not pointed towards him. You guessed it, once again I am putting the blame on Julien. When the 2018-19 season begun, everyone was giving Julien credit for “changing his ways’’ and “adapting to the new NHL.” Julien was giving players like Mike Reilly (a player who struggles in his own zone but can create offense) more ice time. He seemed to move away from putting so much importance in defending and was taking chances offensively instead. Veteran players like Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner (who in the past Julien preferred) were being pushed aside for younger, faster players.

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien
Canadiens head coach Claude Julien (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

Julien was even quoted saying “We are in the entertainment business,”speaking to the fact that fans want to see talent and offense over defensive play. Drouin seemed to be flourishing from his coach’s new mentality, but as the season went on, Julien slowly shifted back to his old habits.

Before we knew it, Reilly was a healthy scratch. Drouin’s ice time was reduced, and he found himself on a new line away from Domi, now with much less offensively gifted players. It seemed just as the Canadiens needed to play their best hockey, Julien went back to his old ways and prioritized players like Nate Thompson and Christian Folin over Drouin and Reilly. Not to anyone’s surprise, Drouin was unsuccessful playing on a third/fourth line with more grinder type of players.

2019-20: Is this Drouin’s Year?

I do expect a lot from Drouin this upcoming season, but for me, his offensive production relies on the coach’s utilization of him. If Drouin plays with other talented players, and plays a lot, I suspect we could see a career year from him – something in the 60 to 70-point range (which was what he was on pace for the first 50-plus games of this season). If next season picks up from where it left off and Julien continues to mismanage his assets, I wouldn’t expect much from Drouin.

Similar to how he was used with the Lighting, I think Drouin is a high-end complementary piece for a successful team. Meaning, on a good team, Drouin will help that team be even better playing on a second line or behind some other players. He will help create offence with other offensive minded players, he has the capabilities to score over 20 goals a season, and he can help a teams powerplay.

Max Domi #13 of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates a second period goal with teammate Jonathan Drouin
MONTREAL, QC – DECEMBER 04: Max Domi (left) of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates a second period goal with teammate Jonathan Drouin against the Ottawa Senators. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

If we have learned anything in Montreal over the last two seasons, it’s that they cannot rely on Drouin alone to carry the majority of the load, but that is ok. I truly believe with the right linemates and opportunity, and on an overall better Canadiens team (let’s hope), we might be in store for a breakout season from No. 92.